The dungeon crawl is a common theme in tabletop gaming. Simply put, there is nothing more fun than gathering a group of adventurers and descending into the dark places of the world in search of fun and profit. It is a genre that was originally made popular by classic roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons. My first experience of a dungeon crawl board games came in the form of Dragon Quest, a Dungeons and Dragons board game from the early 90s. In all honesty, we were too young to really understand the rules and just made up rules as we went along. Since getting back into board games as an adult, I’ve reacquired this game and, although clunky by today’s standards, it can still be a lot of fun.
Many of the classic board games of this genre were created by Games Workshop, better known today for their Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 tabletop wargames. Heroquest was simple and accessible game produced in conjunction with MB. It was great for younger players, whilst still having some room for depth and storytelling. Unfortunately this game is also long out of print, but reasonably easy to find in a trawl of eBay, car boot sales, conventions and charity shops.
These games hold a lot of nostalgia for many gamers, but there are a number of companies producing excellent, modern dungeon crawls. Among these modern iterations are two games that are very dear to my heart. The first of these is Fantasy Flight’s Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) which follows the classic formula, consisting of a team of fantasy heroes descending into the darkness and facing off against a horde of gribbly beasts. In addition to the heroes, one player takes on the role of overlord, controlling the various beasties.
As with any Fantasy Flight products, the production quality of Descent is amazing. The game just look great. From the artwork on character and monster cards to the miniatures and modular maps, everything is both gorgeous and functional. The game itself is quite simple and most combat boils down to rolling dice for attack and defence, adding on any bonuses, and seeing who has the higher result. Characters are predefined, so you don’t get the fun character creation that you get in Dungeons and Dragons, or even the rather limited character creation of Heroquest, but you can play around a little bit with skills and equipment. Each character has a standard class deck to accompany them, and these can be mixed and matched for some, limited customisation. The game comes with a campaign system and a series of adventures to form your first campaign. This is a big improvement over first edition, in which the campaign system formed one of the many expansions. Speaking of expansions, this game is from Fantasy Flight, so there are already a number of large, medium, small and tiny expansions available adding more heroes, monsters, map tiles and adventures. I’ve only played through about half a campaign thus far and am really enjoying it. Is it as involved and deep as tabletop roleplay? No, of course not, but it is a very fun hack and slash adventure.
The second game that I feel epitomises the modern face of this genre is the delightfully cute chibi dungeon romp, Super Dungeon Explore.
Super Dungeon Explore follows the same basic premise as Descent and Heroquest. It actually feels quite similar to Descent in a lot of ways. Both feature a good selection of heroes descending into a dungeon to face off against a horde of monsters led by powerful boss monsters. Both have nice miniatures and beautiful map tiles. Both feature one player taking on the role of overlord/consul and trying to dick over his friends. Both have a range of expensive expansions that add lots of choice and awesomeness to your game. Both have very similar combat systems with, again, very similar colour-coded custom dice:
What sets Super Dungeon Explore apart is the art style and general tone. Whilst Descent is your typical fantasy setting (Fantasy Flight’s Terrinoth setting), SDE instead seeks to capture the spirit of 8 and 16 bit console RPGs. This is done through an anime-esque chibi style for character and monsters, and through a lot of the terminology and mechanisms of the game. Players progress from early game 8-bit Mode, through the more challenging 16-bit Mode, all the way to Super Mode, with the dark Consul becoming all the more powerful at each point. As the Consul gains strength, so do the players in the form of treasure and loot dropped from enemies. The game is reasonably challenging and I’ve not been in man games where a hero has not, at the very least, been near death, and it is not uncommon for a group to wipe completely on the boss.
When it comes to choosing which game I prefer, I am torn. I feel that I really enjoy running games of Super Dungeon Explore as the dark consul. I enjoy controlling the cute monsters as they tear apart the even cuter heroes. That said, as a player taking on the role of a hero, I prefer Descent. I like the way that heroes work in that game and enjoy working together with my friends to win the scenario, especially given the cool campaign system that Descent uses, wherein the team’s performance in one scenario can often impact on the next. Is that answer a total cop-out? Probably, but I’m sticking with it. If it helps, Super Dungeon Explore gets a lot more use.
Well, that’s fantasy dungeon crawls dealt with. Next time, I’ll take a look at some Sci-fi games in the same genre.